Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hocking Hills, a picturesque 2,348-acre park in southeastern Hocking County

Hocking Hills, a picturesque 2,348-acre park in southeastern Hocking County, is Ohio's best park for natural wonders, and its most scenic state park.

There are caves, cliffs, waterfalls, gorges, rocks, giant trees, first-rate hiking trails and wild country in the Hocking Hills. It is easily accessible via U.S. 33 about 60 minutes southeast of Columbus.

The state park is surrounded by almost 10,000 acres of Hocking State Forest. Nearby is Conkle's Hollow, arguably Ohio's most scenic natural area and preserve.

Also nearby is one of Ohio's best-kept secrets: Rockbridge State Nature Preserve off U.S. 33, with a rock arch that is 100 feet long, up to 20 feet wide, about 5 feet thick and standing 50 feet above a rocky gorge. It is the largest stone arch in Ohio.

Hocking Hills is one of Ohio's most-popular state parks, attracting more than 2.9 million visitors a year. The area has become a tourist mecca with canoe and all-terrain-vehicle rentals, zip lines, tree climbing, rock climbing, paddling trips and airplane tours. Hocking Hills Canopy Tours offers a zip line from April through November outside Rockbridge. (Details: 740-385-9477 or www.hockinghillscanopytours.com.)

There are hundreds of overnight cabins with hot tubs and fireplaces, kitchens and cable television. You also can find accommodations in inns, lodges, campgrounds, teepees, chalets, castles, motels and bed and breakfasts.

A favorite place to stay is the Hickory Grove Lake View Cabin. It sits amidst the Pine and Hickory trees overlooking your own pond on 8 private acres. Hear the frogs speak to you and watch the deer drink while relaxing in the Hot Tub. Forget about your worries and let the daily grind go. Treat yourself with an in cabin massage or meal.

Hocking Hills State Park includes a 17-acre lake for fishing and boating and, in season, a dining lodge and a swimming pool. There are 172 campsites and 40 cabins. (Details: 740-385-6165 or 800-282-7275)

Hocking Hills was a picnic and resort area after the Civil War. Ohio bought its first land for the state park at Old Man's Cave in 1924.

One of the best ways to see the park is to hike the six-mile trail that extends from Old Man's Cave to Ash Cave via Cedar Falls. That's the one-way distance.

The trail honors Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, an Ohio hiking legend who died in 1973 at 86. She was the first woman to continuously hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone in one season — she did it in 1955 at 68 in tennis shoes — and the third woman to hike the entire trail. She hiked the trail two more times.

The trail is part of the cross-Ohio Buckeye Trail, and is a federally designated recreational trail. It is also part of the federal North Country Trail. In all, the state park features 24 miles of hiking trails.

Details: Hocking Hills Tourism Association, 740-385-9706 or 800-462-5464 or www.1800hocking.com.

Old Man's Cave
Old Man's Cave is the park's most-visited site. It is an easy hike of 10 minutes from the first-rate visitor center. There are seven trails in the area. Some include tunnels and stairways through the rock.

The cave itself is 200 feet long with the look and feel of a rocky amphitheater. It is made of Blackhand sandstone that is 250 million years old. However, the area was badly damaged in 1998 floods.

The cave gets its name from hermit Richard Rowe, who lived in it in the late 1860s with two dogs. It sits in a half-mile-long hemlock-lined gorge with three waterfalls as much as 40 feet tall and picturesque pools. It is a cool place to explore on a hot summer afternoon. Attractions include Devil's Bathtub, Eagle Rock, Whale in the Wall and the Sphinx Head.

Ash Cave
Ash Cave at the southern end of the park is Ohio's largest recessed cave.

Erosion to the 700-foot horseshoe-shaped rock face has created a 100-foot-deep recess and, when conditions are right, a slender 90-foot-high waterfall. It is the most impressive natural feature you will find in Ohio.

It was formed when the softer middle stone eroded away, leaving harder and more-resistant layers above and below. Ash piles discovered in the cave indicate that Indians used the site.

The area is handicapped-accessible via a paved trail.

Cedar Falls
Cedar Falls, halfway between Old Man's Cave and Ash Cave, generally is acknowledged as one of the prettiest and most-photographed waterfalls in Ohio. The water tumbles 50 feet down a sandstone wall on Queer Creek into a pool. In winter, Cedar Falls turns into a giant icicle. In summer, the flow might be a trickle.

The early settlers thought the hemlocks around the falls were cedars. A grist mill once stood atop the falls.

Rock House
Rock House is at the north end of the park. An easy 10-minute walk leads to a rocky room that is 200 feet long, 25 feet high and as much as 30 feet deep inside a brightly colored cliff. There are 120 steps along the quarter-mile hike.

Rock House includes seven windowlike openings with a Gothic feel. The openings in the rock are halfway up the face of the 150-foot-tall cliff.

The house is big enough to once have held 100,000 cubic feet of rock. It was formed by the widening of a vertical crack that separated a large block of sandstone from the main cliff above a small tributary of Laurel Run. The enlargement of secondary joints crossing the main one led to the formation of the tunnel's distinctive windows.

Indians once lived in Rock House. A 16-room resort hotel was built near the Rock House in 1835. You will see graffiti from the 19th century on some rocks.

Cantwell Cliffs
Cantwell Cliffs is an isolated section of Hocking Hills State Park that features 150-foot-high cliffs, massive rock outcroppings, large recess caves, deep woods and narrow passages between downed boulders and the cliff along its trails. The Fat Woman's Squeeze is one such passage.

It is the most rugged section of Hocking Hills and its trails are the steepest. It gets the fewest visitors.

Conkle's Hollow
Conkle's Hollow is not officially a state park, but it should be. The 87-acre preserve off Big Pine Road off state Route 374 is a favorite wild spot in Ohio. It is a stunning sandstone gorge with sheer cliffs that rise 200 feet. It is as narrow as 70 feet in places and, reportedly, is the deepest canyon in Ohio.

Depending on the season, you can see waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs, spectacular spring wildflowers, icicles and long-distance vistas across southeastern Ohio.

Conkle's Hollow gets about 200,000 visitors per year. It was purchased by the state in 1925 and dedicated as a nature preserve in 1977. It was part of the state park. There are two trails: a 2.5-mile trail that circles the gorge on top of the cliffs and a tamer one-mile trail on the canyon floor.

The upper Rim Trail is not without risks. It begins with a steep climb and ends with a downhill hike, but it generally is flat. There are no guardrails, so it's not a place for small children or anyone uncomfortable about high places.

The best views are from the east side of the Rim Trail. There is an imposing 96-foot-high waterfall at the northern end on the canyon that is visible only from the Rim Trail.

The trail on the west side is farther away from the main canyon but offers views into side canyons. It is cooler, wetter and more shaded. The lower Gorge Trail is a half-mile to a dead end with two waterfalls, sheer cliffs and dramatic overhangs.

Not far from Conkle's Hollow, you will find a rock climbing and rappelling area in Hocking State Forest. The 99-acre tract — one of two state-owned climbing areas in Ohio — is one mile east of Conkle's Hollow off Big Pine Road.

It features about one mile of sandstone cliffs as much as 120 feet tall along with fallen house-size boulders, cracks, chimneys and overhangs.

Details: State park information, 740-385-6841; Hocking State Forest, 877-247-8733 or www.ohiodnr.com.